Stephen Bennetts: Paul Ginsborg Argues Democracies Need More Citizen Participation

Historians in the News

In 1926, 29 countries could be described as democracies. This number rose slowly to 36 in 1962, but just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1988 only 66 out of 167 UN member states claimed to be democracies. By 2000, the figure had increased to 120 out of 192, the first time democracy had acquired majority status on a world scale. Yet for English historian Paul Ginsborg, "this enormously significant fact ... has to be inspected carefully".

Ginsborg is professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence and a world authority on post-war Italian politics and society. The Politics of Everyday Life is more personal and more global than his previous work on the history of post-war Italy. It draws inspiration from his recent experience of local civic action in response to the election in 2001 of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom he describes as "a dangerous model for the rest of the democratic world". In the face of unprecedented government attacks on the independence of the Italian judiciary and press, Ginsborg and his colleagues established the Laboratory for Democracy in Florence: "We wanted to contribute to two processes: that of defending democracy and at the same time that of renewing it ... Was it possible to invent new forms of democracy in which people could take an active part, and through their participation foster a culture of citizenship?"

The Laboratory for Democracy was one of many responses to Berlusconi from a wide swath of what Ginsborg terms Italian "civil society". In the 1980s and more recently, civil society has been celebrated as the heroic protagonist of numerous citizen struggles for democracy against the "uncivil society" of various eastern European regimes. In Australia, engaging with civil society may involve membership of a local parent-teacher association, the Australian Conservation Foundation, a refugee rights group or participating in Margo Kingston's web diary, Your Democracy.

Ginsborg defines civil society as an area of associations and social interaction that lies between the family and the state, which he believes has an essential role in assuring the vitality of modern democracy: "Civil society fosters the diffusion of power rather than its concentration, builds horizontal solidarities rather than vertical loyalties, encourages debate and autonomy of judgment rather than conformity and obedience." At a wider level, Ginsborg sees the growing significance of international non-government organisations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, and the 2001 establishment of the World Social Forum, as encouraging signs of an emerging "global civil society".

Even at the moment of democracy's greatest triumph, Ginsborg diagnoses widespread problems: for most of us, he says, active politics on an individual level "is reduced to a question of minutes, not days ... we will perhaps vote (an activity of some three minutes) 12 times at a national level and the same number at a local one -- some 72 minutes in all, perhaps one-third of the television viewing we do daily". The "we" of modern democracies is an ever more uncertain entity, he says, as increasing numbers of people do not bother to vote at all.

Disaffection with traditional political parties is widespread as the parties transform themselves into "semi-state agencies". Electoral spending in nearly all democracies has spiralled out of control, ensuring that "the gross economic disparities in society are automatically transferred into the democratic sphere". And a dangerous form of "media-based populism" is evident in "a series of more or less charismatic figures: Menem in Argentina, Berlusconi in Italy, Shinawatra inThailand".

At the same time, Ginsborg identifies a widespread disengagement from civic processes, linking this to the lifestyle of privatised consumption now dominant in democratic states. Citing recent studies of American suburban life, he describes a "dramatic increase in the amount of time spent inside the house ... The greatest increases in sports-related consumption involve in-home activities like treadmills and workout equipment." Behind these statistics "lies a particular model of modern family life, in which solitude, privacy, consumption and enclosedness combine".

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